Judge Mike Pinsky once got stranded on a beach with a beautiful woman, but all he got was sun poisoning and hermit crab bites.
Our review of Seven Beauties: Digitally Remastered Edition, published April 4th, 2006, is also available.
"Such apocalyptic fury! How sweet. Learn the joy of being chained."—Signora Bolk (Mariangela Melato), Summer Night
Koch Lorber packages five films from one of Italy's premiere directors—and the most successful woman director in Europe. Two masterpieces, two interesting but flawed films, and one dud. Is it worth your hundred bucks?
A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was putting together his syllabus for a course in what he dubbed "renegade filmmakers." He had most of his choices for films and directors filled in, but there were a couple of slots left. We were talking about the possibilities, and he expressed his desire to include a woman filmmaker for the sake of balance. Which one? There seem to be few prominent women behind the camera to begin with, so one might safely say that any woman who succeeds as a director is a bit of a renegade. Or perhaps that oversimplifies the problem. Certainly, several women have become comfortably entrenched in the Hollywood studio system over the last few years (Mimi Leder, Penny Marshall) without producing radical work, while others might not be considered prominent enough to feature in an academic course (Kathryn Bigelow, Penelope Spheeris). I offered a few ideas, but we agreed that Maya Deren's work was too experimental for undergraduates (and my colleague wanted to stick with full-length features anyway), and Leni Riefenstahl required, well, a whole lot of context (assuming students could get past her political affiliations).
That left Lina Wertmüller.
Yes, I know. I hate to put it that way, but there you go. The truth of the matter is that Lina Wertmüller, for better or worse, stands out as the one modern female film director whose films are both commercially successful (and accessible to audiences) and yet critically respectable. Not that this should be taken to disparage the work of Lina Wertmüller in any way. It just seems like, well, to drop a cliché, Wertmüller is in a class by herself.
Fortunately, she is more than up to leading the pack, as Koch Lorber's Lina Wertmüller Collection boxed set makes clear. Born in Rome to a German family, Wertmüller cut her teeth working for the greats of post-neorealist Italian cinema (she even worked second unit on Fellini's 8 ½), then spent some years in theater and television with a relatively low profile. Her breakthrough came in 1972, when she teamed up for the first time with Giancarlo Giannini for Mimì Metallurgico Ferito Nell'onore (or "Metalworker Mimi's Wound of Honor," translated internationally as The Seduction of Mimi), a political drama that took its cues from the left-leaning neorealists under whom she apprenticed. She explored the connection between eroticism and politics, with a keen eye for both character and landscape, over the course of several well-received films, including 1973's Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza…'—a title even the Italian audiences just started shortening to Film d'Amore e d'Anarchia, and international audiences just called Love and Anarchy.
This tendency of Wertmüller to match her loose and rambling narratives with loose and rambling titles is all part of the game. Of course, this has resulted in many of her films getting cut up by the time they reach America. It certainly does not help that her films contain nudity and naughty language, all part of her consistent exploration of sex and power. Koch Lorber is presumably trying to rectify some of this previous censorship by offering the five films in The Lina Wertmüller Collection uncut. But for some reason, they package the films out of chronological order and offer little helpful exposition to place either Wertmüller or her films in any historical or social context. Let us look at each film in the set in the order Wertmüller made it, so we can see how her cinematic obsessions have evolved (or not) over the course of the last three decades.
Swept Away (1974; full title: Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto, or "Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August")
Of all Wertmüller's films, I wonder why Guy Ritchie and Madonna chose this one to despoil with their uninspired remake. This is Wertmüller's most iconic picture, the one that encapsulates her obsessions in hermetic fashion.
We begin with images of bathers frolicking along the rocky coast, escaping from their polluted lives by playing in the azure water. Haughty Rafaella (Mariangela Melato) complains about her filthy fellow Italians even as she slathers on tanning lotion. From the outset, her way of enjoying a vacation is to deploy right-wing rhetoric at anyone who will listen. A feral sailor (Giancarlo Giannini) listens and waits for his turn to strike, his piercing blue eyes hiding a boundless class resentment. Send them out on a boat together, strand them on an island, and watch the sparks fly.
You cannot take the sadomasochistic antics of Swept Away seriously. The performances are deliberately over the top, like a sex farce without the usual pratfalls. The characters are simply drawn, and the abstracted settings (boats, water, beach) take them out of any clear sociopolitical environment. The political arguments are dated and fairly obscure to today's viewers (and I suspect even to viewers at the time), which means the audience can just plug in any right-versus-left argument from contemporary politics. But Wertmüller's control of setting is marvelous. (Think of her films like Japanese manga, where the backgrounds are highly detailed but the characters are a little cartoonish). Her dissection of the erotic power play between classes and genders is exquisitely painful. (Some viewers might find the smacking around more disturbing than farcical, and I suspect Wertmüller would be pleased with this reading as well.)
On some level, Swept Away looks like a rape fantasy. But whose? Wertmüller's real accomplishment is that she never takes sides. Rich or poor, left or right, male or female, talky or taciturn, capitalist or communist—in her world it all boils down to the tension between desire and repulsion, the draw and fear of the other. For a movie largely about two characters, Swept Away may have more dialogue than My Dinner With Andre, as Rafaella and Gennarino bicker nonstop before the rough sex begins. Think of it as a screwball comedy written by Michel Foucault. As Gennarino remarks, "There's no vulgarity in love." But it is Wertmüller's startling finale that makes it all work to devastating effect.
Seven Beauties (1975; full title: Pasqualino Settebellezze, or "Pasqualino Sevenbeauties")
World War II is in full fury. The voice of cynical Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini), who goes by the nickname "Seven Beauties," condemns all those who supported fascism because it was easier than standing up. He has grown impatient with "the ones who sleep soundly, even with cancer. Oh yeah."
Seven Beauties switches deftly between Pasqualino's terrifying experiences as a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp and his life back in Italy as a brute to his household of female relatives, an accidental murderer, and a mental patient. Pasqualino is a slimy cad, controlling his sisters like a gangster protecting the "family business." Giannini is perfect as the strutting ladykiller who thinks he is master of his domain but soon finds himself driven to increasingly desperate acts to survive, as he conveys the shift from egotism to humiliation through the most expressive eyes of any European actor.
Her most frightening yet most accessible film, Wertmüller's war movie is a bleak and deeply ironic picaresque that exposes the depraved extent of masculine power. How far will man's violent nature take him? And how much will he debase himself to survive? Together with Swept Away, Seven Beauties displays Wertmüller at the peak of her powers. And yet, we are only two films into this collection. Where do we go from here?
Summer Night (1986; full title: Notte d'estate con profilo greco, occhi a mandorla e odore di basilica, or "Summer Night with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes, and Scent of Basil")
After a weak effort at an English-language film (A Night Full of Rain, with a miscast Candice Bergen), Wertmüller needed to reclaim her reputation. Hence, Summer Night, a recapitulation of Swept Away with fancier dress.
Signora Bolk (Mariangela Melato), a rich woman who fancies herself an ecological activist, hires a former intelligence operative (Roberto Herlitzka, camping it up with an eyepatch and plastic hand, as if he had walked out of a '60s spy farce) to help her kidnap an eco-terrorist (Michele Placido, because, well, maybe Giannini was busy that week). She chains her prize up in a room, then seduces him. It is all supposed to be funny, I suppose.
Wertmüller always has a keen eye for landscape. Summer Night benefits from striking color photography by Camillo Bazzoni, whose camera loves to swing joyously over the Italian coast. She also has a keen eye for faces. Mariangelo Melato is lovely as Bolk, but slightly harsh, a woman whose power and wealth have distracted her for too long. And the image of Beppe in his rhinestone-studded bondage gear is both comical and slightly creepy.
But what do we make of her stories? Summer Night might be a satire on environmental activism, but underneath all power struggles in Wertmüller's world is sex. Sex and class. Signora Bolk has come to substitute a desire to save the world for her own erotic desire, stifled by the personal isolation her power has brought. She has become a decorative piece in her own palatial estate. When she first tells her wealthy lover to call her a filthy pig, we see where she is headed: straight to Beppe's bed.
Beppe is a growling bear who sees the "ruling class" (as Signora Bolk calls herself) as the enemy. But he shows how much of our hatred toward the other is mixed, as always, with envy and desire. This is always Wertmüller's key thesis in her films: Class conflict is really about jealousy and desire—and jealousy and desire always boil down, for her, to sex.
I pause to tell you all this because, having looked at three films in this set, we can safely say a few things about Wertmüller's thematic consistency. We can also recognize that Swept Away works better than Summer Night because it does not get distracted by some of the broader, more farcical touches in the latter film. While Wertmüller adds some new thematic elements to Summer Night (surveillance as a means of control, for example), there is still the sense that she has covered this all before—"right-wing bitch" versus "left-wing prick."
This is also a good time to talk about the marketing strategy behind this set from Koch Lorber. Summer Night is placed first, which might make newcomers to Wertmüller's work think that Swept Away is the rehash, rather than the other way around. And the inclusion of this film (and the two I am about to discuss) also suggests that this set is not exactly the "best" of Lina Wertmüller. That may not be Koch Lorber's fault, though; the fault may be with Wertmüller, in that her later films never quite match her work from the early '70s.
The Nymph (1996; full title: Ninfa plebea)
It is World War II, and the apocalypse is at hand. A whore repents in front of the gossipy, churchgoing townspeople. The priest condemns sexual desire, reminding one and all that sex is only for procreation, and that you should always keep God in mind while you are doing it. Meanwhile, a young woman feels up her soldier boyfriend during the sermon.
We're in Wertmüller's world again, where even an innocent girl (Lucia Cara) talks frankly about sex with pretty much everybody, giggling all the way. She is polymorphous perversity personified, like a fantasy girl in an Italian Eden.
But sex is never safe. Miluzza's mother dies in the middle of an act of adultery. Her uncle seduces her, and she comes straight home from that to find her father dead. With a reputation as a slut, she finds herself attacked by the men in town, who assume she is easy prey. But when she falls in love with a wounded soldier, will romance redeem her tainted past?
A natural and heartfelt performance by Lucia Cara, all doe eyes and lithe smile, holds The Nymph together. As Miluzza shifts from brightly innocent to weary and desperate, each layer of her self-respect stripped away, Cara keeps our sympathy. This makes The Nymph one of Wertmüller's more suspenseful films, even if it rambles on too long. Compare this to the struggles of the female protagonist of Tornatore's overblown Malena a few years later, where the director's efforts to sentimentalize things by focusing on the point of view of a lovestruck boy resulted in a visually striking but empty film. Here, Wertmüller makes similar thematic material work because she has the good sense to make Miluzza a solid character.
Ferdinando and Carolina (1999; full title: Ferdinando e Carolina)
This is the weakest film in the set, both visually and narratively. I do not know what aspect ratio this was shot in, but the film has been matted in such a way that the edges of Wertmüller's framing seem to be sliced off. The print also shows a surprising amount of dirt and wear considering that it is the most recent film in this set. Color and sound are both flat, and some of the sound editing is choppy (listen to the music during Ferdinando and Carolina's first meeting—the orchestral cue cuts abruptly several times).
This may be a good time to talk about the technical qualities of the rest of the films. Swept Away and Summer Night appear in their original 1.85:1 ratio, but the other films are all formatted to "4x3 letterbox," according to the packaging. European films tend to be photographed in 1.66:1, but Koch Lorber seems to play fast and loose with their matting on the three films shot in this ratio. The prints themselves (apart from the shoddy condition of Ferdinando) are clean and sharp for the most part. The Nymph is a little soft in its first few reels. Audio options differ from disc to disc, although whatever their mix, they all pretty much sound the same. Swept Away comes with its original mono soundtrack, plus 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. Seven Beauties has the same, plus three mixes of the badly dubbed English-language version. The other three films: just 2.0 stereo.
So, back to Ferdinando. King Ferdinando (Mario Scaccia), monarch of Naples and Sicily in the late 18th century, is a wrinkly fussbudget near death. He remembers his days as a beautiful rascal (Sergio Assisi) with a preference for hunting and wild sex. He is hitched to a Hapsburg princess (Gabriella Pession) who cries until she meets him, then turns into a quick-witted sex kitten with a riding crop after her wedding night. The last act heads off into a conspiracy plot about Masons, sexual betrayals, and the Neopolitan throne, all played as dark comedy in standard Wertmüller fashion.
The sexual revolution of the 1970s has clearly passed. Lina Wertmüller, now almost 80 years old, does not seem, from the looks of this film, to have found her second wind. She gets overwhelmed by the opulence of the pre-revolutionary setting and loses track of her characters. Ferdinando is a superficial example of masculine energy compared to the rogues of Seven Beauties or Swept Away. He carouses, raves about his fear of smallpox, but never gets any deeper than that. And we learn even less about Carolina. Even Wertmüller seems at a loss to coherently wrap it all up by the end. Maybe we are meant to compare the decadence of these royal reprobates to the coming revolutions in Europe (look for a cameo by Carolina's sister, Marie Antoinette), but since we never see the common people (other than as part of the dying king's fever dreams) or develop any sympathy for the titular couple, the film becomes emotionally inaccessible, a parade of nice sets and costumes with nobody holding them up.
If you are looking for commentary tracks or some historical context to help explain what Lina Wertmüller was trying to do in Ferdinando and Carolina—or in any of the films in this Koch Lorber set—you are out of luck. The sixth disc in The Lina Wertmüller Collection is pretty thin on content. There are Italian and American trailers for some (but not all) of the films (the dubbed trailer for Swept Away is sublimely nonsensical), a photo gallery, and a 77-minute interview produced by Carlo Lizzani for a series on Italian cinema. The subtitles on this interview are burned in and extremely difficult to read, but you will not likely learn very much from this interview anyway if you are a newcomer to Wertmüller's films. Looking like Andy Warhol's hipper sister in a white Chinese outfit (complete with folding fan), Wertmüller discusses her long career. She spends a lot of time name-dropping about her apprenticeship (I presume the Italian audience recognizes more of these names, but I could only pick out a few) before moving on her own success as a director. Although she considers herself a tomboy, she clearly understands how unusual her position is as the world's most prominent female director and how this informs the gender critique in her films. Often, the interview drags, but overall, we get the sense that her experiences in Italian cinema constitute one big collection of friends that hook up in various combinations to knock out films—often on a whim—critique each other's movies, and then periodically luck into some international distribution. Ultimately, for Wertmüller, cinema is all about having fun. If only this interview were more fun.
Few directors can boast one truly important film. Lina Wertmüller can boast at least two, if not more. But I am not sure that Swept Away and Seven Beauties, which are both available separately, justify the cost of this boxed set, considering that two of the other three films are dispensable, the third (The Nymph) is good but not great, and the extra content is insufficient. Perhaps if this set were less expensive, it might be worth your while, if you are not already a fan of Lina Wertmüller, to sample these five films. As it stands, while she is a crucial figure in Italian cinema and has turned in some great work, I am reluctant to reward Koch Lorber's indifferent release of The Lina Wertmüller Collection with anything more than a lukewarm recommendation. Fans of Italian cinema may want to look into this. Those interested in a talented female director of rare prominence may want to look into this. Newcomers, pick up the two classics from this set elsewhere and then decide if Lina Wertmüller's confrontational examinations of politics and eroticism are right for you.
The men of Koch Lorber are order to be tied up, spanked with a riding crop, and taught the proper meaning of respect toward women. This court stands adjourned.
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Scales of Justice, Swept Away (1974)
Perp Profile, Swept Away (1974)
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Swept Away (1974)
Scales of Justice, Seven Beauties
Perp Profile, Seven Beauties
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Seven Beauties
Scales of Justice, Summer Night
Perp Profile, Summer Night
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Summer Night
Scales of Justice, The Nymph
Perp Profile, The Nymph
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, The Nymph
Scales of Justice, Ferdinando And Carolina
Perp Profile, Ferdinando And Carolina
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Ferdinando And Carolina
• Interview with Lina Wertmüller
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